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NASA Needs a Lot of Re-Engineering

August 21, 2003|Alcestis Oberg | Alcestis Oberg, an author and science and technology writer, has covered NASA for 25 years.

Independent investigators looking into the Columbia space shuttle disaster have signaled all summer that their findings -- to be released shortly -- will be tough on NASA's complacent, self-satisfied culture. If so, then the members of the Columbia Accident Review Board will have put their fingers precisely on the problem plaguing the space program: too much tolerance for facile assumptions and too few reality checks.

The deaths of the astronauts and the loss of Columbia on Feb. 1 had much to do with the same NASA "flawed decision-making process" that was cited after the Challenger disaster in 1986. Both disasters were avoidable had employees of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration done their jobs more thoroughly. If history is any indicator, however, NASA will put on a big public act of contrition after the review board's report -- and then do nothing to reform its institutional arrogance.

The most recent sign of NASA intransigence was the in-house "return to flight" team that NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe brought together Aug. 7 to implement the review board's upcoming recommendations. Its members were not the legendary, no-nonsense engineering managers of the past who might have pulled the space agency back to the gold standard of aerospace professionalism. Instead, he picked former astronauts and other space industry careerists of dubious independence. This team could handle technical improvements, but it would never disturb the smug clique within NASA that played such a large part in the Columbia disaster.

Richard Covey, the in-house team's co-chairman and a former astronaut, said as much when he assured the media last month that although technical fixes would be made, the team may never assess the agency's management and decision-making processes, or what he termed "the cultural issues within NASA." Translation? NASA managers can kill people, blow up spacecraft, set back the U.S. space program for years not once but twice -- and not worry about their jobs.

NASA still can't even admit it did anything wrong. In an appalling meeting with media members in late July, Linda Ham, the manager responsible for the Columbia mission, tearfully told selected reporters, "I don't believe anyone is at fault for this." Ham's team insisted they all had good intentions and tried hard. In fact, Ham's team refused to take real-time pictures of Columbia's wing or conduct other tests to ascertain the damage -- it was simply decided that everything was safe. Nobody spoke up; nobody objected.

Former NASA engineers -- many who have been banished from NASA's ranks and review boards over the last decade because of an outspoken commitment to safety -- were appalled by Ham's statements. In an Internet interview last month, several insisted that engineers with the right stuff would have demanded facts -- pictures of Columbia's wing, possibly space walks to examine potential damage. They would have left no stone unturned.

In the Apollo era, engineering findings during missions were not only challenged and tested by the leaders themselves, but plenty of naysayers expressed lingering technical concerns. These qualms were documented and investigated further if necessary. The absence of such qualms during Columbia's last flight was a demonstration of NASA's main problem: There were only yes men and yes women in the room.

There's one more fatal NASA flaw expressed not by Ham but by her boss, yet another former astronaut, NASA's associate administrator, Bill Readdy: "We cannot ... allow the critics to cow us into inaction. We shall not spend a single minute being defensive." Translation? When the accident board delivers its report, circle the wagons and pay no attention.

So what can be done?

O'Keefe needs to replace the current return-to-flight team with by-the-book engineers who will get their hands dirty making safety a top priority. He must end the careers of those managers who would protect the status quo. He has to send the message to the troops: Mission responsibility must be taken personally and directly.

And astronauts -- who are more apt to follow orders than challenge bosses -- should be steered away from most NASA leadership positions. Meticulous engineers who look into every detail, question every technical analysis and base their judgments on facts should make the decisions at NASA.

Finally, if O'Keefe is not up to the task of remolding NASA's culture by appointing a no-nonsense staff to reform and re-educate the agency, President Bush must replace him with someone who is. Otherwise -- and there's no question about it -- we're headed for another shuttle disaster.

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